When buying a world map in China, you’ll instantly notice two things:
1. Everything is written with (tiny) Chinese characters
2. It’s Asia-centered with Asia placed in the middle of the map, Africa and Europe on the left and the Americas on the right side of the map.
So, China is placed in the middle of the map. Rather appropriate for a country named Middle Kingdom 中国 (ZhōngGuó). This notion stems from the historic fact that China once dominated that part of the world (kind of like today) and was considered the most technologically and culturally advanced empire on the planet Earth.
So China was massive and rich and other countries were supposed to come to the Chinese court (if the gracious Emperor so granted) bringing presents and sending their most important leaders to kneel before the Emperor. This action of kowtowing (叩头 KòuTóu) actually involves kneeling so low to the ground that one’s forehead is able to touch it. It was necessary to do it to show respect and submission, and of course, things got complicated with the arrival of western embassies – many refused to bow, since that would imply that their own king was inferior to the Chinese emperor.
Interestingly enough, in email speak, kowtow is represented by the letters Orz, which form a stick figure bowing.
Going back to the geography and geographic names, the Chinese names for the four Western countries US, Germany, United Kingdom (well, England, actually) and France are special: they only consist of two characters, the first being a transliteration + (positive) meaning and the second being the character 国 Guó, which means ‘country’. Judging from the characters used for the first part of the name, the Chinese were in that stage rather enamoured with them. You’ll see what I mean:
- 美国 (MěiGuó) United States – the land of the beautiful
- 德国 (DéGuó) Germany – the land of the virtuous
- 英国 (YīngGuó) England – the land of the brave
- 法国 (FǎGuó) France – the land of the just
Most of other countries consist of 3-5 syllables and are mere transliterations. For example:
- 印度尼西亚 (YìnDùnNíXīYà) Indonesia
- 尼日利亚 (NíRìLìYà) Nigeria
- 墨西哥 (MòXīGē) Mexico
- 意大利 (YìDàLì) Italy
The seven continents in Chinese all have the word 洲 (Zhōu) in common, which means ‘continent’:
- 亚洲 (YàZhōu) Asia
- 非洲 (FēiZhōu) Africa
- 北美洲 (Běi MěiZhōu) North America
- 南美洲 (Nán MěiZhōu) South America
- 南极洲 (NánJíZhōu) Antarctica
- 欧洲 (OūZhōu) Europe
- 大洋洲/澳洲 (DàYáng Zhōu/ÀoZhōu) Oceania/Australia
The Chinese word for ‘map’ is 地图 DìTú, lit. Earth + map. Maps are flat objects, so they go with the measure word 张 (Zhāng). For instance:
- 一张地图 (Yī Zhāng DìTú) is one map, or a map
- 一张桌子 (Yī Zhāng ZhuōZi): a/one table